[De]Institutionalizing English (by Jennifer Burton)

Jennifer Burton pic.jpegWe have been anticipating the publication of this post for several weeks now. It is our first spoken word poem and it comes to you from Jennifer Burton, at University of Regina.  After completing her degree in Justice Studies, she decided to take one year out of her life to teach English as a Second Language in Seoul, South Korea.  Teaching in Korea soon became her life and one year quickly turned into five.  In 2010, she returned back “home” to Regina, Saskatchewan and continued teaching ESL at the University of Regina.  Currently, she is writing her MEd thesis where much of her work is informed by her experiences as a teacher and language learner, centering on some of the themes highlighted in the BILD blog.


 

The piece that I share today is a first person account of a beautiful soul on a transformational journey as they embark on the process of learning the English language.  Eager at first to gain membership in the English speaking community, this language learner quickly discovers that it’s not as easy as anticipated – their desire goes unmet as the learner bumps up against forms of resistance.  It’s difficult, sometimes, to “fit in” when others notice your accent; being an English user is more than simply mastering the grammar rules.

When you unpack this poem you will discover it’s laced with several themes: how language is embedded with power, how speakers engage in acts of negotiation and renegotiation as they communicate, how teachers need to account for ways we “other” students, to name a few.

The beautiful thing about poetry is that the interpretation belongs with YOU.

Dedicated to language learners who tumble and fall along their way.

 

[De]Institutionalizing English

 So it begins for me with 1-2-3

And then A-B-C

As I embark on a new journey

Learning a language so foreign to me.

 

A language strange to my ear

Yet splattered on street corners

Turn on the TV,

And you will hear.

 

And so the standardization commences

classroom rules,

grammar tenses.

 

Master these rules and you will see

Promises of open doors

A future full of possibility.

 

I forget to dot an ‘i’

Or to cross a ‘t’

A demarcation of my skill

My inability

 

My English,

Still broken at this time

Unaware of its captivity

That it will soon pay for its crime.

 

And so I master the rules,

With the grammar I start

But I discover, that each communicative encounter

Is more like a performance,

An art.

 

You see speaking is a two-way street

Language is about negotiation,

Crafting an identity

With each person I meet.

 

But test after test,

Standardization, you see

Gatekeepers of this language

No space for reconceptualising my identity.

 

Questioning the norm goes against the grain.

The status quo

Well, that must remain.

 

Pack in a plethora of status and power

To diminish all silence and space

The English language,

Never free from my skin colour,

Nor my race.

 

I am marked by the accent from within me

This Native-speaker model

From which we all must break free.

 

So many others have fallen prey to this deceptive illusion

The English language system

Creating borders of acceptance

And exclusion.

 

The dominant class

A perpetuation of their ideology

But what’s your “English” name?

Reproducing such hegemony.

 

May we be so fortunate to have scholars

Pave the way for speakers like me,

To shake up our understanding of language

And create space for English variety.

 

In listening to our silent unspoken words

They come to realize their own worst fear,

The mistake is not solely in how I speak

But rests with you, in how you hear.

~ Jennifer Burton

 

Acknowledgements:  A special thank-you to my encouraging and patient supervisor, Dr. Andrea Sterzuk.

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